In Asia

Ninh Binh, Vietnam | Temples in King Kong’s Backyard

The quiet. That’s the first thing you notice in Ninh Binh. Hanoi is wonderfully chaotic and the train south sways like a waltzing drunk on old rails. But in Ninh Binh, a heavenly silence settles in the thick air like a sloth nestling into a makeshift hammock. It embraces you and holds you like a lover. Everything will be okay.

Just a two-hour train ride south of the megalopolis that is Hanoi sits sleepy Ninh Binh. This serene slice of subtropical bliss is the polar opposite of the Vietnamese capital. Here you can take a deep breath, relax, and slow down.

We split our two days in the area by bike and motorbike. From our humble bungalow abode, we set out for a meandering ride around the countryside, seeing what we can find along the way. After stumbling across a roadside temple, we visited Thung Sen Tam Coc Restaurant & Café where they maintain a short hiking trail and some ladders that give passersby a panoramic view of the region. All they ask in return for their trouble is that you buy a drink. For the views, we’re happy to oblige.

The Thai Vi Temple sits just around the corner. A musician ushers us in to take a seat and listen to some tunes. Dating back to sometime in the 13th or 14th centuries, it’s just the tip of the temple iceberg, if you will, that surrounds Ninh Binh.

The Bich Dong Pagoda is, perhaps, the star of the area. Though it was first built in 1428, it was abandoned until two Buddhist monks rediscovered the pagoda in 1705. They cleaned up the joint and rebuilt it as a multi-tier pagoda built into the limestone mountains. Now I’m neither Chip nor Joanna Gaines, but I think they did a pretty nice job with the place.

Our last stop of the day: Thung Nham Bird Park with over 300 hectares home to roughly 40,000 birds of 46 different species among a series of elaborate caves. Unlike the pagoda, there’s nary a tourist in sight. Just us and the birds.

Day 2 and it’s time for a Southeast Asia rite of passage––driving a motorbike. Thankfully it’s just a quiet, 3.5-mile ride to the Hang Mua Viewpoint to get whatever the motorbike equivalent of sea legs is. If you know me, you know I generally loathe cars. Human-powered movement is my jam. 

But after spending some time on the motorbike, and even more in Laos (to be continued), I gotta say… I get the appeal. The warm air smacking you against your face, the smells of life happening around you, the intimacy of everything being within an arm’s reach… There’s nothing quite like it. Riding through the countryside, you feel alive.

At Hang Mua, it’s busy. Not only do you have the rush of tourists, but we learned that this is a popular spot for Vietnamese women to come and snap wedding photos in their traditional dress. So no kvetching about the steep 300-foot climb to the top. She did it in a freakin’ dress with a fur stole across her top.

Our last stop takes over to Trang An for a guided paddle at the foot of these sublime limestone mountains that doubled as the set of King Kong’s Skull Island. Over the course of 2-3 hours, we slowly meander around the lakes and connecting canals through caves with stops at different temples along the way. Again, nary a tourist in sight. Just us and a taste of postcard Vietnam that’s plenty worthy of a little nature montage.

Maybe you noticed that I haven’t said much about the town itself. That’s because… It’s fine. Don’t get me wrong! We ate plenty well. This is still Vietnam we’re talking about. But when you’ve got empty double-decker karaoke buses, you know this is a place built up around tourists, not locals.

But like I said, you can find good food, the beer is cold, and most importantly, this is all at your doorstep. Yeah, it could be worse.

For our next stop, we bid tạm biệt to Vietnam and land in Luang Prabang, Laos.

You Might Also Like